McCoy Creek

By Steve Stuckmeyer

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When Jeff Bennett describes McCoy Creek as one of the "hottest new runs in the book" he doesn't exaggerate. This run had enough action to keep even the best boaters in our group busy. We knew from the guidebook that McCoy was solid class V and that it was studded with huge drops with the last mile dropping 280 feet. We also knew that it was 3 miles long, and that afterwards we would have to boat out 4.5 miles on class IV+ Yellowjacket Creek. What we didn't know was that it was located about 500 to 1000 feet deep in a remote gorge, and that many of the biggest drops would prove intimidating to scout and nearly impossible to portage. It proved to be a full day excursion, and I would end up with an injured shoulder and ribs. McCoy Creek was the first class V run for my new Prijon Rockit, and I learned the hard way that using unfamiliar gear on a tough class V creek is a definite liability.

McCoy was flowing with about 150 cfs when we put on around 11am. We started in sunny skies, but soon the day became heavily overcast. The initial sequence was an interesting mix of ledgy class III rapids and small boulder gardens. Downstream, a logjam necessitated a portage, then a steep sequence of 3-foot ledges led around a corner and into a 12-foot ledge drop, the first class V. The main flow went left, slid off a wall and crashed into a big swirling pothole. There was a thin line with the current along the wall that looked to put one past the pothole. Dan probed with good results, and the others followed with slightly worse or better results. No one landed in the pothole, but a couple came kind of close (at least from my viewpoint).

The drop with the pothole at the beginning of McCoy Creek.

Downstream the class IV and V action came in quick succession. The next major class V was "Tom's Slide". This 18 foot, 70 degree drop was pretty trivial to run. Take it on the right and make sure to hit the big hole at the base head-on. If you don't it'll probably be a long surf!

Mark Rainsley runs Toms Slide ( photo by Si Wiles )

Below Tom's Slide the creek slowly mellowed out a bit. One creek-wide log would have been easy to walk around, but I wanted to try barrel rolling over it. I had some problems, and actually got stuck upside down on top of the log! Very embarrassing! I finally struggled my way off, but put a small hole in my sprayskirt and left my paddle on the log in the process. I hand-rolled up, paddled over to where George could pull me into the shallows, and then retrieved my paddle. A stupid stunt cost me a hole in my skirt, and several bruised or cracked ribs. Please learn from my stupidity! Don't try silly stunts on runs where you need to be in your best form. A bit below this another accident occurred. In a trashy class IV boulder garden, George flipped and was pulled out of his boat. He got to shore easily with a little help from Dave, but he had abandoned his boat. The rest of us had just pulled out into a final eddy above what looked to be a huge drop. Fortunately we were able to catch George’s boat, and drag into that same eddy.

We were at the top of "Chinook Falls", aka "Backwards and Upside Down (BUD)". BUD was the biggest and most complex runnable drop on McCoy Creek. Even scouting was intimidating, and portaging looked like it would take at least half an hour! The creek dropped about 35-40 feet in 60 yards. First was a twisting narrow section with several holes, and some very strong eddylines, then a free-falling 8 foot falls (with a bad roostertail on the far right where 90% of the current went), then a big swirling eddy on river left and a 15-foot falls to finish off into a big pool. From the top, the final falls was simply a horizon line. Fortunately for us, "mountain goat Dan" was able to traverse along the slippery rock walls and swim across that bottom eddy to inspect the final falls. Upon returning, the word was that far right looked safest. The left evidently was a double drop with a BIG hole at the bottom. Unfortunately nearly all the current channeled hard to the left.

My run over the second drop on Chinook Falls. The first (crux) drop on Chinook is just upstream and out of sight and is where I injured my shoulder.

Again Dan played "Probe Unit #1". His line was a bit shaky at the top, but very nice for the remainder of the drop. He even made it off the far right side by doing a hard ferry out of the big swirling eddy halfway down. Again portaging wasn't really an option, so we all watched each other's progress. I was tardy enough that I ended up last. A couple of us made the line down the final drop on the far right, but really due to getting pushed too close to the pin roostertail in the middle drop rather than due to being perfectly on the safest line. Pretty much everyone else took the 8-footer on the far left, landed in the big eddy, and then blew the ferry and ended up sailing down the left and through the big holes. Brad got flipped coming off that second waterfall, and pulled a fast roll and a couple of quick strokes just as he was about to head over the final drop sent him into the eddy instead. I was last. The strong eddyline almost flipped me halfway through the twisting section, but I hung out on a high brace and got myself righted in time to get the crucial two stokes to sail off the lip of the first falls and into the eddy. I also didn't quite make the ferry to the right, and dropped through the pothole on river left and then deep into the big hole at the base. I 'Rockited' to the surface nearly vertical, and managed to land the boat without flipping. I felt exhilarated, but the run had a huge price tag. The high brace had nearly dislocated my shoulder! It started to feel better pretty quick, but between it and my sore ribs my performance started to lag at this point in the run.

A bit below "BUD" we found another class IV+ to V ledgy rapid. It seemed a pretty straightforward twisting entry into a vertical 6-foot ledge. I almost got flipped in the entry move, had my line blown, and plunged over the worst of the drop. I went deep and came up vertical. Evidently I was out of the hole, but fell over backwards and was pushed into the left wall. I flailed at several roll attempts; none were working. I felt lots of aeration and thought I might still be in the hole, so I went for a swim. I surfaced right next to my boat, and next to Dan's boat! Evidently I had been trying to roll up against the wall and had not realized it! The swim was inconsequential, but the rolling attempt and the hard brace further upstream had put me in a world of hurt. My sore ribs felt like they were separating, and my shoulder felt like it could pop out at any minute.

Just downstream the bottom dropped out of the creek. We scouted from a ledge on the right, and found a freefalling 25-28 foot waterfall that dropped into a sculpted grotto. Half jokingly, Dan asked if anyone else wanted to probe. He was surprised when I volunteered. One look had convinced me the portage would hurt more in my state than simply falling over a waterfall. So without any nervousness, I headed towards the boof flake on the falls. The boof looked like it would be automatic, but the flake turned out to have enough downward curvature that it forced a vertical entry. I went deep and popped up upside-down. A quick, but painful roll, put me back in control and over towards a gravel bar on the right. I hopped out and photographed the other's runs. It turns out that no one was able to run this one without errors. Everyone that came off the flake in control, went deep, and surfaced upside-down. Brad came off a bit cockeyed, landed facing into the falls, and made it out without flipping. And Dave somehow came off totally sideways, landed flat in the hole with water falling on his head, and surfed his way out upright!

Dave Mustonen runs the lower falls.

Below this falls things got ugly. Dan evidently blasted over the next blind ledge and did fine. The rest of us scouted from the right bank. It looked like a really ugly ledge drop into a narrow slot, and downstream a dozen yards loomed the biggest horizon line yet (obviously the unrunnable 45-foot falls we had read about in the guidebook). I immediately decided to make the easy portage, and headed back to slowly drag my boat downstream. Meanwhile George had decided to run the drop. I heard a brief cheer, then Dave yelling for a throwbag. At first I wasn't sure what was happening (being a bit preoccupied with my pains), and then I realized what Dave was yelling about. I dropped my boat, and tried to get my throwbag off my back. I struggled helplessly at my bag’s release strap (using my right arm which I couldn't bend very well any more) while I jumped up to where I could see what was happening. Evidently George had gotten pulled back into the hole, and was presently upside down trying to grab some downstream current. We had really let the ball fall on this one, and didn't have proper safety set up for such a hazardous drop. After what seemed like 15 seconds George finally swam and proceeded to get tumbled in the hole. I think he was in that hole for over a minute. I'm not sure he ever got a breath. I don't think I ever saw his head surface. The aeration and violence of the narrow hole just kept tumbling him out of control. Dave pegged him on the helmet once with a throwrope; the rest of us were caught flat-footed and were very slow to react. No one but I had another throwrope, and I couldn't get mine off my back! I honestly felt like I was about to witness a drowning or at least a near-drowning. It was scary. Amazingly just after I got my bag freed, Dave's rope tangled around George, George felt it and got a grip, and Dave pulled him free of the hole. Josh and Dave then grabbed on to George's arms and helped him up the rock face and out of the water. George's Gradient continued to recycle in the hole. Gabe had been about to run the drop after George entered (and when the initial cheer had gone up), but he had barely been stopped by our shouts prior to entering. He actually had time to get out of his boat and be the one to grab George's boat when it came out. Gabe pounced on it, and with Dan's help (Dan was the only one in the water) he was able to pull it to safety prior to the 45 foot falls. George just kind of lay back on the rocks and recouped. I was amazed at how fast he bounced back from this ugly experience. I guess that's what many years boating class V does for you (George had at least 10 years of experience over all of us).

After this frightening experience, the rest of us made the easy portage around this ledge on the right. Again I almost flipped when I seal-launched into the water, and had to stress my shoulder on a big brace. Only 10 yards after entering the water we pulled back out in the shallows just upstream and on the right of the 45-foot falls. I walked down and took a photo of this falls from the lip. It was huge, and certainly unrunnable by mere mortals (or at least those who’d like to live to see grandchildren). The portage looked very arduous. It started out with an 80-degree climb up about 80 feet. We used ropes to pull one boat up after another. At this point my ribs and shoulder were a mess. It was all I could do to struggle up the 80-degree slope with our paddles. Fortunately, Dan and Brad offered to drag my boat through this portage. After reaching the top of the slope, Dave quickly moved downstream looking for access back to the creek. Eventually he came back saying he had found a way down; unfortunately it was about 200 yards downstream. I think I saw a route down after about 50 yards, but was in no mood to argue with anyone (especially since they were carrying my boat for me). When we reached the point of descent, we broke out the ropes again. We lowered the boats in 3 independent stages; the first two were about 50 vertical feet, and the last about 15 feet. About an hour after starting this portage, we were all finally back in the creek.

Josh scouts the unrunnable falls.

Below the portage we were confronted by a quarter-mile of small class III rapids and then we hit the confluence with Yellowjacket Creek. After being on McCoy, Yellowjacket felt huge (probably had about 600 cfs). We kind of let our guard down, and it almost cost us dearly. After a couple class III rapids, we entered a longer class IV that I think is called ‘Godzilla’. It had a twisting, hole-filled entry. Again I almost flipped in the entry, but held onto myself and barely stayed upright. Then just as I rounded a corner and was heading toward what at first looked like a clean riverwide ledge, I saw it was blocked by an Alder tree about 6 inches above the water. Dan had caught a tiny eddy above it on river left; Gabe had just swung into a big eddy on the right; I saw the log, heard Gabe screaming, and labored into the eddy on the right. It was tough getting out of the main current while my ribs and shoulder were screaming in pain, but I had to ignore that and get to safety fast. I made the eddy. Meanwhile Josh had been bombing down, and did not see the log until it was too late. Somehow he managed to claw his way into the tiny eddy Dan was sitting in, then climbed out of his boat and onto the canyon wall; he looked pretty scared. Then he hiked back upstream to where the others were. They all then took out on the right and portaged down to the eddy where Gabe and I sat. Meanwhile Dan made the ferry over the fast jet of water and into the same eddy. He commented that he had never seen the log, and had only caught the tiny left eddy for the fun of it. That potentially saved his life. The log was a deathtrap with just 6 inches of clearance above the water, and all of the current screaming headlong under it.

At this point it was starting to get dim. However Dan wanted my saw, and was determined to try and clear out the "log that had almost killed him". Dave and George waited for him, while the rest of us headed downstream. Yellowjacket creek was an interesting challenge after having just come off the much harder McCoy creek. Each rapid had many lines, but they also had big sticky holes, fairly pushy water, and some bad wood hazards. The run is rated class IV+. I really wanted to get off the river. Had there been a road nearby, I would have been sitting on it. As it was I had no choice but to suck it up and somehow make my way down through the impressive granite and basalt gorges that make up that last 4 miles of Yellowjacket Creek. I was boating very poorly, and I knew my shoulder was so bad that I couldn’t roll anymore. Furthermore, I had lost my drainplug during the portage of the unrunnable 45-foot drop, so my boat was slowly filling with water in the waves and holes of Yellowjacket Creek. It was all I could do to stay upright and follow Gabe downstream. After running several IV+ rapids, I did portage one easy class IV; I was already out of my boat emptying it of water and just decided not to risk getting flipped in the drop. Fortunately, a short way below that drop the canyon walls suddenly peeled back and we were in an easy class II-III float for the final mile.

I have seldom been happier to be off the river than I was that day. Becoming injured in such a remote situation was a challenge I do not look forward to ever repeating. As I write (two days later), my ribs and shoulder are better, but I still suspect it will be a week or two before I feel fit to head back to a river. Perhaps I’ll run some class III-IV this weekend; even that might be too much too soon. I have learned that new boats on hard class V rivers are a definite liability. Regardless of how confident you are of your ability, a different boat can easily be enough to throw you off line and into trouble. On a class V run, any trouble is too much. And I will reiterate my version of an old boating proverb, "Only use a high brace as a last resort. Its good to be kind to your shoulder joint; learn to handle your boat such that a high brace is never necessary."